erik lundegaard

Win Win

Win Win (2011)


I left “Win Win” in a calm state of mind. Tom McCarthy’s movies tend to do that to me. I went home, fed the cat, got ready to write, turned on the light in my office, and, pop!, one of the two light bulbs in the ancient, overhead lamp blew out. So I got out the stepladder and replaced the bulb. But it was one of those new curlicue bulbs that gives off a harsher, more piercing light. Didn’t like it. So I removed it, fumbled for an old-fashioned, softer bulb. Wouldn’t screw in properly. The overhead lamp, as I said, is ancient, and probably needs electrical work, and finally I gave up, returned the unspent bulb to its case, returned the stepladder to the closet, turned on the light with its one working light bulb, and sat down to write this, as calm as could be. If I’d just seen a Michael Bay movie I probably would have yanked the overhead lamp down by its roots.

McCarthy, as an actor, is most memorable to me as the fictionalizing, preppy journalist from the final season of “The Wire”—a role so indelible I doubt I’ll ever be able to trust his face again—but he’s directed three movies now: “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” and “Win Win.” Three for three.

He’s been topical lately, hasn’t he? Muslim incarceration and deportation in “The Visitor”; now the post-global financial meltdown world.

We never hear those words in “Win Win,” though, do we? The film doesn’t mention Wall Street or subprime mortgage loans or CEO salaries. It’s just tough economic times. The movie could take place in the late 1970s.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is an attorney with a small, solo practice, a wife and two girls, and a metaphorical piece of toilet paper stuck to his shoe. Nothing goes right for him. The dead tree out front needs to be taken down, the clunking furnace in his office needs replacing, but he has no money for either of these things because his business is dying. Plus he’s having anxiety attacks. Plus the high school wrestling team he coaches is oh-for-whatever. They’re winless. They’re lose-lose.

Then a solution to his money woes presents itself and changes everything. A client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), suffering the early stages of dementia, can no longer live on his own but doesn’t want to become a ward of the state, and his one relation, a drug-addicted daughter, can’t be found. What to do? Mike’s secretary, Shelly (Nina Arianda), mentions how she sure could use that $1500 guardian fee ... which is when the light bulb goes on over Mike’s head. During the court hearing to determine Leo’s future address, Mike convinces the judge that he will become Leo’s guardian, and the judge, after some befuddlement, agrees. Instead, Mike takes Leo to an assisted living facility. Mike is pocketing $1500 a month from the state, Leo gets cared for at Oak Knoll, it’s win-win. Except it’s completely unethical and could get him disbarred.

For a time, to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, because McCarthy cuts away before the judge makes her ruling. But you suspect something’s not right ... just as most of us suspected something wasn’t right with those subprime mortgage loans. This is McCarthy’s M.O. He doesn’t hand us things; he doesn’t engage in sloppy or obvious backstory. He lets events play out. Knowledge comes by and by.

The wins for Mike keep coming, too. Watching Leo’s house, he finds, on his front steps, Leo’s grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the drug addict’s son, a teenager with dyed blonde hair and deadpan expression, lost in the buzz of an iPod. Leo didn’t know he existed but accepts it with the calm fatalism of most McCarthy characters. (Which explains my own calm fatalism with the light bulb.) Kyle, meanwhile, turns out to be a great wrestler, and, when he lands on Mike’s wrestling team, he becomes a kind of Roy Hobbs for the suburban New Jersey set. He inspires others to win. Or lose less.

Shaffer was a wrestler and non-actor in suburban New Jersey when McCarthy plucked him for the role, and his character, who has some of the funnier scenes in the film, bursts the confinements of the stereotypical teen. He’s monosyllabic but not sullen. He seems to have no goals until he does. There’s something almost Zen about him. The men become fans. When Mike and his friend, Terry Delfino (McCarthy regular Bobby Cannavale), find a clip of Kyle at the Ohio state wrestling tournament, they high-five each other and whoop it up. When assistant coach Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), well-meaning but even more hapless than Mike, sees Kyle wrestle, he says, “I don’t think there’s anything we can teach him.” After a match, we get this exchange in the school hallway:

Mike: What is it like—to be as good as you are?
Kyle: Feels like I’m in control. Of everything. You know?
Mike: Must be nice.

That’s one of the great ironies of the film. Kyle has no control over his life (he has to live where people say), Leo has no control over his life (he has to live where people say), but the people who do have control, like Mike, feel like they have no control. Maybe because they’re the ones who actually run things. You only feel out of control when you’re supposed to have it in the first place.

The ethical lapse in the first act, of course, goes off in the third. Kyle’s mom, Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), turns up, friendly but with a local lawyer (Margo Martindale, the Denver mail carrier from “Paris je t’aime”), and demands custody of both Kyle and Leo. Transcripts are dug up, Mike’s secret is revealed. What will happen?

Surprisingly little. The ethical lapse is confronted personally but not penalized professionally, while the solution Mike feared in the beginning—getting a second job as a bartender—is the solution he embraces in the end. It’s not exactly a Hollywood ending but there are Hollywood elements to it. The economic crisis in the film world means having to take a second job; the economic crisis in the real world means being unable to find the first.

Even so, bravo. It’s sad that a film like this—accessible, funny and warm; a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t pander or dumb down—can’t get wider distribution. Maybe if more of us saw it we’d be a calmer country.

—April 11, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard